Louis Simpson was a poet of whose work Seamus Heaney once said: "His poems win us first by their drama, their ways of voicing our ways – of making do with our lives. Then his intelligence cajoles us to the brink of a cliff of solitude and we step over into the buoyant element of true poetry." In some 20 volumes of poetry published during his lifetime, he used traditional verse forms and free verse to speak of modern life and times, but also of history and myth, of love and war.
"American Poem" is one of his best known, a short piece which demonstrates the simplicity and immediacy of his language :
Whatever it is, it must have
A stomach that can digest
Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems.
Like the shark it contains a shoe.
It must swim for miles through the desert
Uttering cries that are almost human.
Although he lived and worked in America for most of his adult life, Simpson's view of the country was that of an outsider. He was born in Jamaica in 1923 to a Russian mother. His father, of Scottish heritage, died when he was 16. A year later he moved to New York, where he was taught at Columbia University by the poet and editor Mark Van Doren.
His studies were interrupted by the war, when he was called up into the 101st Airborne Division and served in Europe as a messenger to the front lines. This period had a significant influence on his first three collections of poetry. In "Carentan O Carentan" he writes cynically of the ambush on his platoon in June 1944, which killed many of his fellow solders: "O Captain, show us quickly / Our place upon the map. / But the Captain's sickly / And taking a long nap."
Back at Columbia he completed his degree and travelled to France as a beneficiary of the GI Bill, which offered education grants to returning soldiers. His first book of poetry, Les Arrivistes (1949), was published in Paris while he was studying there. William Robertson, who wrote Louis Simpson: A Reference Guide (1980), observes that this debut work, by a virtually unknown poet, garnered a remarkable 11 reviews, of widely diverging opinions. He notes that it was already clear by then that "few would remain neutral to Simpson's work."
A year later, Simpson returned to the US and began working at the publisher Bobbs-Merrill in New York, rising to associate editor by 1955, the year of his second collection, Good News of Death. He returned to academia, going on to hold positions at the universities of Columbia, Berkeley and Stony Brook over the next four decades.
At the End of the Open Road (1963) won a Pulitzer Prize. Simpson's status as an outsider looking in was reflected in Edward Hirsch's observation that "The moral genius of this book is that it traverses the open road of American mythology and brings us back to ourselves; it sees us not as we wish to be but as we are."
Three on the Tower (1975), taking as its theme the poetic trio of TS Eliot, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, consolidated his role as a literary critic. Three years later came A Revolution in Taste: Studies of Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell. The Character of the Poet (1986), discusses what he sees as the two extremes of American poetry, from the formalism of Wallace Stevens through to the plainness of William Carlos Williams, a poet who based his work on life's experiences.
Simpson's own position, closest to Williams in its outlook, is that "I write about feelings people share, in language that can be understood." Simpson also translated works by foreign poets. His Modern Poets of France: A Bilingual Anthology (1997) gained him the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award.
Simpson's most recent collection, Voices in the Distance: Selected Poems, was published in 2010 by Bloodaxe. The former Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, described it as "Forty years' worth of work that feels absolutely compelling in its mixture of intensity and relaxation", and noted: "I first started reading him 30 years ago and now hardly a day goes by without my looking at him again, thinking: how does he do that?"
Louis Aston Marantz Simpson, poet, critic, translator and teacher: born Kingston, Jamaica 27 March 1923; married 1949 Jeanne Rogers (divorced 1954; one son), 1955 Dorothy Roochvarg (divorced 1979; one son, one daughter), 1985 Miriam Bachner (divorced 1998); died New York 14 September 2012